As a reading antidote to all the glorious Shakespeare plays and classical English poetry and novels that I ,and many of my friends loved, was our passion for all things French – from popular music to film, books , philososphy, and Gitane cigarettes. Our heroes, heroines and idols were: Camus,Sartre, Sagan, de Beauvoir and Godard. We plastered our notebooks with pictures of Jean-Paul Belmondo. We bought the songs of Francoise Hardy and Jacques Brel. We wanted to look and dress like Jean Seberg, or Brigitte Bardot. We pouted; piled our hair high, or cut it gamine short. Wore black from head to toe; or pink gingham.
I read everything I could by Albert Camus ( translated in to English): ‘The Fall’. The Plague’,The Rebel’,’The Outsider’ and many articles and plays. He’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957; but died, aged only 46, in 1960. He was a kind of James Dean of the world of journalism and literature. A ‘rock God’ of the philosphy of Absurdism. For my school-leaving prize for ‘A’ Level work, I asked for his The Myth of Sisyphus,( published then by Hamish Hamilton). I had developed the thrill that many bibliophiles have of become totally enthralled with the work of one author. This continued later in life with my love for the works of Milan Kundera, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Patrick Hamilton, George Orwell, Jean Rhys, John Fante and Geoff Dyer – to name only a few.
My friends and I became little beatniks. Total innocents moping round Soho in our black polo-necked jumpers, tight skirts, black stockings and flat pumps. A girlfriend and I studied ‘Life Drawing’ classes at the Sir John Cass School of Art on Saturday mornings,and then sat and drank ‘frothy’ coffees out of glass cups at ‘The Two I’s coffee bar at 59. Old Compton Street, or, less frequently at Le Macabre in Meard Street, desperately trying to look intellectual, sophisticated and less virginal, in our pancake make-up and black eyeliner.
But we were still teenagers, who enjoyed Girl magazine, and, in my case, a delight in the poetry of John Betjeman.
And,the supreme irony was, that although we were fluent in the films of Godard e.g. ‘Au Bout de Souffle’, and understood the lyrics of songs such as ‘Tous les garcons et les filles’ ( with our schoolgirl French), none of us had ever set foot in France, or were even likely to, for years to come.